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EDITORIAL: Major parties want the debates all to themselves

Many Americans are less than thrilled with the two presidential candidates whom the major political parties have foisted upon them this November. It’s no surprise that a majority of voters favor expanding the presidential debates to include other candidates.

But the Democratic and Republican parties could not care less.

A Harvard CAPS/Harris poll found that 71 percent of those surveyed said that debates between Republican Donald Trump and Democratic President Joe Biden should include other candidates as long as they can meet “a viable threshold,” The Hill reported last month. A second poll, this one from News Nation/Decision Desk HQ, found that 65 percent of American voters support allowing third-party candidates such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to take part in the debates.

Mr. Biden has agreed to two debates with Mr. Trump, the first on June 27 on CNN, the second hosted by ABC on Sept. 10. The Commission on Presidential Debates — a consortium of the two parties — has traditionally organized the debates, but the president’s team has scuttled that approach in favor of directly negotiating with the Trump camp and networks. This provides the teetering Biden campaign with more control over the process.

Mr. Biden has said he will share the debate stage only with Mr. Trump. The former president has been more circumspect but previously insisted he would debate anytime, anywhere. Yet he, too, eschewed debates — during the Republican primaries — when he calculated they weren’t in his best interest.

The commission has typically used an arbitrary polling standard to keep third-party candidates from appearing. Reform Party candidate Ross Perot in 1992 was the only non-major candidate to make the stage. He eventually earned 19 percent of the vote in the general election.

Certainly, some standard must exist. But American voters would be better off — particularly this election cycle — with criteria that demand either a minimum level of polling support (say 10 percent) or a ballot access threshold.

But typically the gatekeepers manipulate the standards to appease the two major-party candidates. Thus the Green Party and Libertarian hopefuls, who will appear on most state ballots, will be excluded because of polling numbers. Mr. Kennedy, polling at 15 percent in some surveys, probably will be left out under the guise that he hasn’t qualified for the ballot in enough states.

The deck is stacked. That’s too bad.

At a minimum, Mr. Kennedy deserves a place on the debate stage, particularly as voters crave alternatives. ABC and CNN should invite him. If Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump want to walk away, let them suffer the political consequences. But don’t hold your breath.

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